Protecting Your Digital Information & Yourself from Ransomware

In a meeting with President Joe Biden last week, business leaders from major technology and insurance firms committed billions of dollars to beefing up cybersecurity defenses desperately needed after several high profile hacks into major infrastructure and technology platforms this year. This is long overdue given the lax approach taken over the past several years by most major firms.

On May 7, 2021, the Colonial Pipeline, which carries almost half of the East Coast’s fuel supply from Texas to New Jersey, shut down operations in response to a ransomware attack. A ransomware attack is where a hacker latches on to your computer or network, locks you out and threatens to delete or make your data public if you don’t pay a ransom (see below). Colonial paid a $4.4 million ransom not long after discovering the attack, and the pipeline was reopened within a week. While there was enough stored fuel to weather the outage, panic buying caused gasoline shortages on the East Coast and pushed the national average price of gasoline over $3.00 per gallon for the first time since 2014.(1)

Ransomware is not new, but the Colonial Pipeline incident demonstrated the risk to critical infrastructure and elicited strong response from the federal government. Remarkably, the Department of Justice recovered most of the ransom, and the syndicate behind the attack, known as DarkSide, announced it was shutting down operations.(2)

The Department of Homeland Security issued new regulations requiring owners and operators of critical pipelines to report cybersecurity threats within 12 hours of discovery, and to review cybersecurity practices and report the results within 30 days.(3) On a broader level, the incident increased focus on government initiatives to strengthen the nation’s cybersecurity and create a global coalition to hold countries that shelter cyber criminals accountable.(4)

Malicious Code

Ransomware is malicious code (malware) that infects the victim’s computer system, allowing the perpetrator to lock the files and demand a ransom in return for a digital key to restore access. Some attackers may also threaten to reveal sensitive data. There were an estimated 305 million ransomware attacks globally in 2020, a 62% increase over 2019. More than 200 million of them were in the United States.(5)

The recent surge in high-profile ransomware attacks represents a shift by cyber-criminal syndicates from stealing data from “data-rich” targets such as retailers, insurers, and financial companies to locking data of businesses and other organizations that are essential to public welfare. A week after the Colonial Pipeline attack, JBS USA Holdings, which processes one-fifth of the U.S. meat supply, paid an $11 million ransom. (6) Health-care systems, which spend relatively little on cybersecurity, are a prime target, jeopardizing patient care.(7) Other common targets include state and local governments, school systems, and private companies of all sizes.(8)

Ransomware gangs, mostly located in Russia and other Eastern European countries, typically set ransom demands in relation to their perception of the victim’s ability to pay, and high-dollar attacks may be resolved through negotiations by a middleman and a cyber insurance company. Although the FBI discourages ransom payments, essential businesses and organizations may not have time to reconstruct their computer systems, and reconstruction can be more expensive than paying the ransom.(9)

Protecting Your Data

While major ransomware syndicates focus on more lucrative targets, plenty of cyber-criminals prey on individual consumers, whether locking data for ransom, gaining access to financial accounts, or stealing and selling personal information.

Most people don’t know that before becoming a full time financial planner, I spent about twelve years working for major consulting firms helping with deployment of software, hardware and networking equipment, so I know a few things about data security (where do you think the “geek” came from in my moniker?)

Here are some tips to help make your data more secure: (10)

Use strong passwords and protect them. An analysis of the Colonial Pipeline attack revealed that the attackers gained access through a leaked password to an old account with remote server access.(11) Strong passwords are your first line of defense. Use at least 8 to 12 characters with a mix of upper- and lower-case letters, numbers, and symbols. Longer and more complex passwords are better. Do not use personal information or dictionary words and use different passwords for different web sites.

One technique is to use a passphrase that you can remember and adapt. For example, Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water could be J&jwuth!!2faPow (please don’t use this example as your password!). Though it’s tempting to reuse a strong password, it is safer to use different passwords for different accounts. Consider a password manager program that generates random passwords, which you can access through a strong master password. My personal favorite that I’ve been using for over 15 years is RoboForm, but most well-known password managers do a good job (if you click on the link and subscribe to RoboForm, we’ll both get an extra six months added to our subscriptions). Whatever you do, don’t share or write down your passwords.

There are no easy answers. Be careful when establishing security questions that can be used for password recovery. It may be better to use fictional answers that you can remember. If a criminal can guess your answer through available information (such as an online profile), he or she can reset your password and gain access to your account.

Take two steps. Two-step authentication, typically a text or email code sent to your mobile device, provides a second line of defense even if a hacker has access to your password. If your device is lost or stolen, immediately call your carrier and lock or wipe your device before they can hijack your accounts. Most devices can be wiped remotely or be set to automatically erase themselves after a set number of failed attempts.

Think before you click. Ransomware and other malicious code are often transferred to the infected computer through a “phishing” email that tricks the reader into clicking on a link. Data thieves have become adept at creating fake e-mails that look 100% legitimate, so you must be vigilant.

If you hover with your mouse over most internet links, you’ll see exactly where they’ll take you, and it’s not necessarily the site that’s displayed in the text. Never click on a link in an email or text (or a photo) unless you know the sender, are expecting it, and have a clear idea where the link will take you. Even then, you can’t be sure your friend’s or relative’s e-mail account has not been hacked and a seemingly innocent attachment or link is laced with malware.

Install security software. Install antivirus/anti-malware software, a firewall, and an email filter — and keep them updated. Old outdated antivirus software won’t stop new viruses. If your computer, laptop or other devices don’t have extra security software, you shouldn’t be online. Period. And no, in my opinion, Microsoft Defender is not sufficient to protect your PC. The old thought that Apple Mac devices are safe from vulnerability is no longer true; though safer than PC’s, they are prime targets for malicious attacks as well.

Back up your data. Back up regularly to an external hard drive. For added security, disconnect the drive from your computer between backups. Backing up to an online service is a great idea, but your backup might also be infected or affected by malware or ransomware. Only an offline backup, when disconnected at the time of infection, is safe. Never attach the external drive to restore data until you’re sure the threat or malware is 100% removed and the device is safe.

Keep your system up-to-date. Use the most recent operating system that can run on your computer and download security updates. Most ransomware attacks target vulnerable operating systems and applications. Fortunately, for better or worse, Microsoft Windows has made is nearly impossible to avoid installing periodic security patches.

Avoid Public Networks for Sensitive or Financial Transactions. Using public Wi-Fi networks is a prime gateway for malware and ransomware attacks. Networks with names like “Free Public WiFi” are meant to lure you in and install Trojan horses onto your device. If you have to type in a password to access an online resource, then you probably don’t want to do this on a public network (or at least use a password manager to log you in so your keystrokes aren’t tracked). Virtual private network software/services are also a help here.

Secure your entry points. This month alone, my home network router blocked over 4 million port scans and thwarted 75 live threats. If you don’t know what this means, then you need a home network security geek or the help of your internet service provider to help you beef up the security of your home network.

Your home network router/switch probably came with a factory set password which is widely known and easily accessed. Changing the default device password is the easiest way to reduce your vulnerability to an outside attack. Most modern day routers come with more user friendly instructions and software on how to disable your guest network and beef up home security. There’s no need to broadcast your WiFi network name to your neighbors, so that should be turned off, or you might as well call your home WiFi network “HACKERSWELCOME”.

If you see a notice on your computer that you have been infected by a virus or that your data is being held for ransom, it’s more likely to be a fake pop-up window than an actual attack. These pop-ups typically have a phone number to call for “technical support” or to make a payment. Do not call the number and do not click on the window or any links. Instead, try exiting your browser and restarting your computer. If you continue to receive a notice or your data is really locked, contact a legitimate technical support provider, but definitely not the one listed in the pop-up window.

For more information and other tips, visit the Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency website at us-cert.cisa.gov/ncas/tips.

If you would like to review your current investment portfolio or discuss any other financial planning matters, please don’t hesitate to contact us or visit our website at http://www.ydfs.com. We are a fee-only fiduciary financial planning firm that always puts your interests first.  If you are not a client yet, an initial consultation is complimentary and there is never any pressure or hidden sales pitch. We start with a specific assessment of your personal situation. There is no rush and no cookie-cutter approach. Each client is different, and so is your financial plan and investment objectives.

(1) (2) (11) Vox, June 8, 2021

(3) U.S. Department of Homeland Security, May 27, 2021

(4) The Washington Post, June 4, 2021

(5) 2021 SonicWall Cyber Threat Report

(6) The Wall Street Journal, June 9, 2021

(7) Fortune, December 5, 2020

(8) Institute for Security and Technology, 2021

(9) The New Yorker, June 7, 2021

(10) Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency, 2021

Update on the Enhanced Child Tax Credit

Earlier this year in April, I wrote about the changes Congress made to the child tax credit that will benefit many taxpayers. As part of the American Rescue Plan Act that was enacted in March 2021, the child tax credit:

  • Amount has increased for certain taxpayers
  • Is fully refundable (meaning you can receive it even if you don’t owe the IRS any taxes)
  • May be partially received in monthly payments

The new law also raised the age of qualifying children to 17 from 16, meaning that more families will be able to take advantage of the credit for at least one year longer.

The IRS will pay half the credit in the form of advance monthly payments beginning July 15. Taxpayers will then claim the other half when they file their 2021 income tax return.

Though these tax changes are temporary and only apply to the 2021 tax year, they may present important cash flow and financial planning opportunities today. It is also important to note that the monthly advance of the child tax credit is a significant change. The credit is normally part of your income tax return and would reduce your tax liability. The choice to have the child tax credit advanced will affect your refund or amount due when you file your return. To avoid any surprises, please get in touch with us if you’re concerned.

Qualifications and how much to expect

The child tax credit and advance payments are based on several factors, including the age of your children and your income.

  • The credit for children ages five and younger is up to $3,600 –– with up to $300 received in monthly payments.
  • The credit for children ages six to 17 is up to $3,000 –– with up to $250 received in monthly payments.

To qualify for the child tax credit monthly payments, you (and your spouse if you file a joint tax return) must have:

  • Filed a 2019 or 2020 tax return and claimed the child tax credit or given the IRS your information using the non-filer tool
  • A main home in the U.S. for more than half the year or file a joint return with a spouse who has a main home in the U.S. for more than half the year
  • A qualifying child who is under age 18 at the end of 2021 and who has a valid Social Security number
  • Income less than certain limits (see below)

You can take full advantage of the credit if your income (specifically, your modified adjusted gross income) is less than $75,000 for single filers, $150,000 for married filing jointly filers and $112,500 for head of household filers. The credit begins to phase out above those thresholds.

Higher-income families (e.g., married filing jointly couples with $400,000 or less in income or other filers with $200,000 or less in income) will generally get the same credit as prior law (generally $2,000 per qualifying child) but may also choose to receive monthly payments.

Taxpayers generally won’t need to do anything to receive any advance payments as the IRS will use the information it has on file to start issuing the payments.

IRS’ child tax credit update portal

Using the IRS’ child tax credit and update portal, taxpayers can update their information to reflect any new information that might impact their child tax credit amount, such as filing status or number of children. Parents may also use the online portal to elect out of the advance payments or check on the status of payments.

The IRS also has a non-filer portal to use for certain situations.

If you would like to review your current investment portfolio or discuss any other financial planning matters, please don’t hesitate to contact us or visit our website at http://www.ydfs.com. We are a fee-only fiduciary financial planning firm that always puts your interests first.  If you are not a client yet, an initial consultation is complimentary and there is never any pressure or hidden sales pitch. We start with a specific assessment of your personal situation. There is no rush and no cookie-cutter approach. Each client is different, and so is your financial plan and investment objectives.

Inflation: Transitory or Here to Stay?

From leading indicators to business surveys to initial unemployment claims, the economic message is clear: The 2020 COVID-19 recession is over! Although the NBER (National Bureau of Economic Research) has yet to make their official announcement, my bet is that the recession ending point is backdated all the way to last autumn, or even earlier. That’s how economics often works… with perfect 20/20 hindsight.

As the economy’s emergence from pandemic restrictions exceeds widespread forecasts and expectations, so do underlying pressures in other areas vital to the stock market’s outlook. And with the combination of a potential valuation bubble on Wall Street and corresponding housing bubble on Main Street, investor sensitivity to interest rates has never been higher.

In April 2021, the Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U) rose 0.8%, the largest one-month increase since August 2012. Over the previous 12 months, the increase was 4.2%, the highest year-over-year inflation rate since September 2008 (4.9% over prior 12 months). By contrast, inflation in 2020 was just 1.4%. (1)

The annual increase in CPI-U — often called headline inflation — was due in part to the fact that the index dropped in March 2020, the beginning of the U.S. economic shutdown in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Thus, the current 12-month comparison is to an unusual low point in prices. The index dropped even further in April 2020, and this “base effect” will continue to skew annual data through June. (2)

The monthly April increase, which followed a substantial 0.6% increase in March, is more indicative of the current situation. Economists expect inflation numbers to rise for some time. The question is whether they represent a temporary anomaly or the beginning of a more worrisome inflationary trend.

Measuring Prices

In considering the prospects for inflation, it’s important to understand some of the measures that economists use.

CPI-U measures the price of a fixed market basket of goods and services. As such, it is a good measure of prices consumers pay if they buy the same items over time, but it does not reflect changes in consumer behavior and can be unduly influenced by extreme increases in specific categories.

In setting economic policy, the Federal Reserve prefers a different inflation measure called the Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE) Price Index, which is even broader than the CPI and adjusts for changes in consumer behavior — i.e. when consumers shift to purchase a different item because the preferred item is too expensive. More specifically, the Fed looks at core PCE, which rose 0.7% in April and 3.6% for the previous 12 months, slightly lower than core CPI but much higher than the Fed’s target of 2% for healthy economic growth. (3)

A Hot Economy

Based on the core numbers, inflation is not yet running high, but there are clear inflationary pressures on the U.S. economy. Loose monetary policies by the central bank and trillions of dollars in government stimulus could create excess money supply as the economy reopens. Pent-up consumer demand for goods and services is likely to rise quickly, fueled by stimulus payments and healthy savings accounts built by those who worked through the pandemic with little opportunity to spend their earnings. Businesses that shut down or cut back when the economy was closed may not be able to ramp up quickly enough to meet demand. Supply-chain disruptions and higher costs for raw materials, transportation, and labor have already led some businesses to raise prices. (4)

According to the April Wall Street Journal Economic Forecasting Survey, gross domestic product (GDP) is expected to increase at an annualized rate of 8.4% in the second quarter of 2021 and by 6.4% for the year — a torrid annual growth rate that would be the highest since 1984. As with the base effect for inflation, it’s important to keep in mind that this follows a 3.5% GDP decline in 2020. Even so, the expectation is for a hot economy through the end of the year, followed by solid 3.2% growth in 2022 before slowing down to 2.4% in 2023. (5)(6)

Three Scenarios

As investors have become increasingly concerned about inflation, the Federal Reserve has given countless reassurances that current pricing pressures will be “transitory” and short-lived. Yet mounting evidence has seemingly turned this debate into the Fed versus the World.

Will the economy get too hot to handle? Though all economists expect inflation numbers to rise in the near term, there are three different views on the potential long-term effects.

The most sanguine perspective, held by many economic policymakers including Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, is that the impact will be short-lived and due primarily to the base effect with little or no long-term consequences. (7) Inflation has been abnormally low since the Great Recession, consistently lagging the Fed’s 2% target. In August 2020, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) announced that it would allow inflation to run moderately above 2% for some time in order to create a 2% average over the longer term. Given this policy, the FOMC is unlikely to raise interest rates unless core PCE inflation runs well above 2% for an extended period. (8) The mid-March FOMC projection sees core PCE inflation at just 2.2% by the end of 2021, and the benchmark federal funds rate remaining at 0.0% to 0.25% through the end of 2023. (9)

The second view believes that inflation may last longer, with potentially wider consequences, but that any effects will be temporary and reversible.

The third perspective is that inflation could become a more extended problem that may be difficult to control. Both camps project that the base effects will be amplified by “demand-pull” inflation, where demand exceeds supply and pushes prices upward. The more extreme view believes this might lead to a “cost-push” effect and inflationary feedback loop where businesses, faced with less competition and higher costs, would raise prices preemptively, and workers would demand higher wages in response. (10)

Is Current Inflation “Transitory?

Dual surveys from the Institute for Supply Management (ISM) are ringing alarm bells, as the ISM Manufacturing Prices Paid Index has surged to one of its highest readings on record, led by widespread commodity price increases. As stated by one respondent to the ISM survey, “In 35 years of purchasing, I’ve never seen anything like these extended lead times and rising prices – from colors, film, corrugate to resins, they’re all up.” Likewise, even in the Service Sector the Prices Paid Index shot higher and is nearing a 25-year high.

Low inventories among companies that produce goods will undoubtedly keep price pressures high as companies scramble to replenish their depleted inventory and meet the unexpectedly high demand.” And prices have, indeed, continued to rise, while restocking efforts have been unable to prevent customer inventories from falling to a record low.

Central to the Fed’s “transitory inflation” argument is the belief that supply/demand pressures will quickly subside as inventories rebound. My concern is that broader evidence suggests inflation could be far stickier than the Fed expects.

From groceries to lumber to cars and even chickens, inflation pressures are being felt by consumers and businesses. The widespread nature of today’s inflation is one of the factors that suggest pricing pressures may be more deep-rooted than the Fed believes.

Perhaps most importantly, business owners are also facing higher wage costs as qualified labor is becoming an increasingly rare commodity. The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) reports that a record 44% of small businesses have unfilled positions, and over half of those with job openings reported that there were few or no qualified applicants.

Historically, wage inflation can be notoriously sticky, and the disparity between the NFIB Job Openings and reported Wage Inflation is a gap that will almost certainly be closed in the year ahead. This casts further doubt on the Fed’s narrative that inflation will surely be “transitory.” And unfortunately for the Fed, wage inflation–once ingrained–can typically only be reversed by a recession.

As businesses are facing higher input expenses, they are already making plans to pass these costs on to their customers. The National Federation of Small Business’ survey of small businesses shows that plans to raise selling prices have reached the second highest level since 1981 – a time when inflation was running near 10%.

Maintaining Perspective

Although it’s too early to tell whether current inflation numbers will lead to a longer-term shift, you can expect higher prices for some items as the economy reopens. Consumers don’t like higher prices, but it’s important to keep these increases in perspective. Gasoline, jet fuel, and other petroleum prices are rising after being deeply depressed during the pandemic. Airline ticket prices are increasing but remain below their pre-pandemic level. Used cars and trucks are more expensive than before the pandemic, but clothing is still cheaper. (11) Food is up 3.5% over the last 12 months, a significant increase but not extreme for prices that tend to be volatile. (12)

Anyone who has tried to buy or build a home in the past six months is aware of the rising stresses in the housing market. Home prices are soaring, not only here in the U.S. but on a global basis as well.

History has shown that it will be difficult, if not impossible, for the Federal Reserve to dampen or halt the imminent impact of the red-hot labor and housing market on the economy. Any cost surprises will undoubtedly be to the upside in the months and year ahead, and that does not bode well for inflation news OR for the Fed’s reassurance of “transitory” inflation.

For now, it may be helpful to remember that “headline inflation” does not always represent the larger economy. And with interest rates near zero, the Federal Reserve has plenty of room to make any necessary adjustments to monetary policy.

If you would like to review your current investment portfolio or discuss any other financial planning matters, please don’t hesitate to contact us or visit our website at http://www.ydfs.com. We are a fee-only fiduciary financial planning firm that always puts your interests first.  If you are not a client yet, an initial consultation is complimentary and there is never any pressure or hidden sales pitch. We start with a specific assessment of your personal situation. There is no rush and no cookie-cutter approach. Each client is different, and so is your financial plan and investment objectives.

Projections are based on current conditions, are subject to change, and may not come to pass.

1, 12) U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2021

2, 4) The Wall Street Journal, April 13, 2021

3, 6) U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, 2021

5) The Wall Street Journal Economic Forecasting Survey, April 2021

7, 10) Bloomberg, March 29, 2021

8) The Wall Street Journal, April 14, 2021

9) Federal Reserve, 2021

11) The New York Times, April 13, 2021

Enhanced Child Tax Credit for 2021

The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA) ushered in several tax changes that we highlighted in this post last month. One of those tax changes involves the Enhanced Child Tax Credit.

If you have qualifying children under the age of 18, you may be able to claim a child tax credit (You may also be able to claim a partial credit for certain other dependents who are not qualifying children.) The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 makes substantial and temporary improvements to the child tax credit for 2021, which may increase the amount you might receive.

Ages of qualifying children

The legislation makes 17-year-olds eligible as qualifying children in 2021. Thus, children age 17 and younger are eligible as qualifying children in 2021.

Increase in credit amount

For 2021, the child tax credit amount increases from $2,000 to $3,000 per qualifying child ($3,600 per qualifying child under age 6). The partial credit for other dependents who are not qualifying children remains at $500 per dependent.

Phaseout of credit

The combined child tax credit (the sum of your child tax credits and credits for other dependents) is subject to phaseout based on modified adjusted gross income (MAGI), which for most people, is your total income subject to taxes (this may differ from your taxable income shown on the tax return if you have certain adjustments). Special rules start phasing out the increased portion of the child tax credit in 2021 at much lower thresholds than under pre-existing rules. The credit, as reduced under the special rules for 2021, is then subject to phaseout under the pre-existing phaseout rules.

The following table summarizes the effect of the phaseouts on the child tax credit in 2021, based on MAGI.

Single/Married filing separatelyMarried filing jointlyHead of householdCombined credit
Up to $75,000Up to $150,000Up to $112,500No reduction in credit
$75,001 to $200,000$150,001 to $400,000$112,501 to $200,000Credit can be reduced to $2,000 per qualifying child, $500 per other dependent
More than $200,000More than $400,000More than $200,000Credit can be reduced to $0

Enhanced Child Tax Credit is Refundable

The aggregate amount of nonrefundable credits allowed is limited to your tax liability. With refundable credits, a taxpayer may receive a tax refund at tax time even if they exceed their tax liability.

For most taxpayers, the child tax credit is fully refundable for 2021. To qualify for a full refund, the taxpayer (or either spouse for joint returns) must generally reside in the United States for more than half of the taxable year. Otherwise,  under the pre-existing rules, a partial refund of up to $1,400 per qualifying child may be available. The credit for other dependents is not refundable.

Advance payments

Eligible taxpayers may receive periodic advance payments for up to half of the refundable child tax credit during 2021, generally based on 2020 tax returns.  The U.S. Treasury will make the payments between July and December 2021. For example, monthly payments could be up to $250 per qualifying child ($300 per qualifying child under age 6). Due to correspondence backlogs and under-staffing at the IRS, it remains to be seen if they can make good on sending out those payments on a timely basis this year.

If you would like to review your current investment portfolio, discuss any other financial planning or tax matters, please don’t hesitate to contact us or visit our website at http://www.ydfs.com. We are a fee-only fiduciary financial planning firm that always puts your interests first.  If you are not a client yet, an initial consultation is complimentary and there is never any pressure or hidden sales pitch. We start with a specific assessment of your personal situation. There is no rush and no cookie-cutter approach. Each client is different, and so is your financial plan and investment objectives.

Tax Deadline Extended Amid Tax Changes in American Rescue Plan

2020 Individual Income Tax Return Deadline Extended

The Treasury Department and the IRS have extended the federal income tax filing due date for individuals for the 2020 tax year from April 15 to May 17. Although this relief applies to any balance due with the return, this relief does not apply to 2021 estimated income tax payments that are due on April 15, 2021. These payments are oddly still due on April 15, 2021. The IRS will provide formal guidance in the coming days.

The federal tax filing deadline postponement to May 17, 2021 is of no help to self-employed people and others who don’t receive a steady source of income because it only applies to individual federal income returns and tax (including tax on self-employment income) payments otherwise due April 15, 2021, not state tax payments or deposits or payments of any other type of federal tax. Given that the first quarterly 2021 estimated income payment due date is April 15, and knowing that it often is based on a prior year return, not extending that deadline as well, is an empty gesture by the IRS for these folks. The American Institute of CPA’s has appealed to the IRS to act swiftly to remedy this and extend the deadline for all returns and estimates until June 15, 2021. I concur with this appeal.

Taxpayers also will need to file income tax returns in 42 states plus the District of Columbia. State filing and payment deadlines vary and are not always the same as the federal filing deadline. Nonetheless, many states will conform with and follow the new IRS deadline. The IRS urges taxpayers to check with their state tax agencies for those details.

American Rescue Plan of 2021

On Thursday, March 11, 2021, the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA 2021) was signed into law. This is a $1.9 trillion emergency relief package that includes payments to individuals and funding for federal programs, vaccines and testing, state and local governments, and schools. It is intended to assist individuals and businesses during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and accompanying economic crisis.  Major relief provisions are summarized here, including some tax provisions.

Recovery rebates (stimulus checks)

Many individuals will receive another direct payment from the federal government. Technically a 2021 refundable income tax credit, the rebate amount will be calculated based on 2019 tax returns filed (or on 2020 tax returns if filed and processed by the IRS at the time of determination) and sent automatically via check, direct deposit, or debit card to qualifying individuals. To qualify for a payment, individuals generally must have a Social Security number and must not qualify as the dependent of another individual.

The amount of the recovery rebate is $1,400 ($2,800 if married filing a joint return) plus $1,400 for each dependent. Recovery rebates start to phase out for those with an adjusted gross income (AGI) exceeding $75,000 ($150,000 if married filing a joint return, $112,500 for those filing as head of household). Recovery rebates are completely phased out for those with an AGI of $80,000 ($160,000 if married filing a joint return, $120,000 for those filing as head of household).

Unemployment provisions

The legislation extends unemployment benefit assistance:

  • An additional $300 weekly benefit to those collecting unemployment benefits, through September 6, 2021
  • An additional 29-week extension of federally funded unemployment benefits for individuals who exhaust their state unemployment benefits
  • Targeted federal reimbursement of state unemployment compensation designed to eliminate state one-week delays in providing benefits (allowing individuals to receive a maximum 79 weeks of benefits)
  • Unemployment benefits through September 6, 2021, for many who would not otherwise qualify, including independent contractors and part-time workers

For 2020, the legislation also makes the first $10,200 (per spouse for joint returns) of unemployment benefits nontaxable if the taxpayer’s modified adjusted gross income is less than $150,000. If a 2020 tax return has already been filed, an amended return may be needed. The IRS urges patience on filing amended returns until they issue additional guidance.

Business relief

  • The employee retention tax credit has been extended through December 31, 2021. It is available to employers that were significantly impacted by the crisis and is applied to offset Social Security payroll taxes. As in the previous extension, the credit is increased to 70% of qualified wages, up to a certain maximum per quarter.
  • The employer tax credits for providing emergency sick and family leave have been extended through September 30, 2021.
  • Eligible small businesses can receive targeted economic injury disaster loan advances from the Small Business Administration. The advances are not included in taxable income. Furthermore, no deduction or basis increase is denied, and no tax attribute is reduced by reason of the exclusion from income.
  • Eligible restaurants can receive restaurant revitalization grants from the Small Business Administration. The grants are not included in taxable income. Furthermore, no deduction or basis increase is denied, and no tax attribute is reduced by reason of the exclusion from income.

Housing relief

  • The legislation allocates additional funds to state and local governments to provide emergency rental and utility assistance through December 31, 2021.
  • The legislation allocates funds to help homeowners with mortgage payments and utility bills.
  • The legislation also allocates funds to help the homeless.

Health insurance relief

  • For those who lost a job and qualify for health insurance under the federal COBRA continuation coverage program, the federal government will generally pay the entire COBRA premium for health insurance from April 1, 2021, through September 30, 2021.
  • For 2021, if a taxpayer receives unemployment compensation, the taxpayer is treated as an applicable taxpayer for purposes of the premium tax credit, and the household income of the taxpayer is favorably treated for purposes of determining the amount of the credit.
  • Persons who bought their own health insurance through a government exchange may qualify for a lower cost through December 31, 2022.

Student loan tax relief

For student loans forgiven or cancelled between January 1, 2021, and December 31, 2025, discharged amounts are not included in taxable income.

Child tax credit

  • For 2021, the credit amount increases from $2,000 to $3,000 per qualifying child ($3,600 for qualifying children under age 6), subject to phaseout based on modified adjusted gross income. The legislation also makes 17-year-olds eligible as qualifying children in 2021.
  • For most individuals, the credit is fully refundable for 2021 if it exceeds tax liability.
  • The Treasury Department is expected to send out periodic advance payments (to be worked out by the Treasury) for up to one-half of the credit during 2021.

Child and dependent care tax credit

  • For 2021, the legislation increases the maximum credit up to $4,000 for one qualifying individual and up to $8,000 for two or more (based on an increased applicable percentage of 50% of costs paid and increased dollar limits).
  • Most taxpayers will not have the applicable percentage reduced (can be reduced from 50% to 20% if AGI exceeds a substantially increased $125,000) in 2021. However, the applicable percentage can now also be reduced from 20% down to 0% if the taxpayer’s AGI exceeds $400,000 in 2021.
  • For most individuals, the credit is fully refundable for 2021 if it exceeds tax liability.

Earned income tax credit

For 2021 only:

  • The legislation generally increases the credit available for individuals with no qualifying children (bringing it closer to the amounts for individuals with one, two, or three or more children which were already much higher).
  • For individuals with no qualifying children, the minimum age at which the credit can be claimed is generally lowered from 25 to 19 (24 for certain full-time students) and the maximum age limit of 64 is eliminated (there are no similar age limits for individuals with qualifying children).
  • To determine the credit amount, taxpayers can elect to use their 2019 earned income if it is more than their 2021 earned income.

For 2021 and later years:

  • Taxpayers otherwise eligible for the credit except that their children do not have Social Security numbers (and were previously prohibited from claiming any credit) can now claim the credit for individuals with no qualifying children.
  • The credit is now available to certain separated spouses who do not file a joint tax return.
  • The level of investment income at which a taxpayer is disqualified from claiming the credit is  increased from $3,650 (as previously indexed for 2021) to $10,000 in 2021 (indexed for inflation in future years).

If you would like to review your current investment portfolio or discuss any other financial planning matters, please don’t hesitate to contact us or visit our website at http://www.ydfs.com. We are a fee-only fiduciary financial planning firm that always puts your interests first.  If you are not a client yet, an initial consultation is complimentary and there is never any pressure or hidden sales pitch. We start with a specific assessment of your personal situation. There is no rush and no cookie-cutter approach. Each client is different, and so is your financial plan and investment objectives.

Should You Hit the Pause Button on Filing Your 2020 Tax Returns?

Note: Since the original publication of this article, the IRS announced that the federal income tax filing due date for individuals for the 2020 tax year is automatically extended until May 17, 2021.

As you likely know, President Joe Biden signed his sweeping $1.9 trillion Covid-19 economic relief package into law on Thursday afternoon March 11, 2021. Included in this package were several tax provisions that increase child tax credits and exempt certain 2020 unemployment benefits from taxation for lower income taxpayers.

Passing retroactive tax legislation just five weeks before the regular 1040 tax deadline of April 15, 2021, is virtually unprecedented, and has left the IRS and tax preparation software vendors scrambling to update calculations, guidance, tax forms, publications and program logic.

Add to the foregoing the IRS’ backlog of taxpayer correspondence and flood of erroneous taxpayer notices and you can understand that this has prompted the American Association of CPA’s to urge the IRS to extend the tax deadline for filing and payment until June 15, 2021, or at least provide guidance to taxpayers on their thinking about whether they are considering extending the tax deadline.

I was notified today that my own tax preparation vendor, Thomson Reuters, “highly recommends that no returns be filed at this time” due to the preliminary draft nature of several forms (which are based on 2019 forms and not yet approved for filing by the IRS) and the last minute passage of tax legislation. Make no mistake, updating the form calculations and logic is no small feat, especially considering that the IRS has issued scant guidance given that the legislation is still a “newborn”.

I imagine that things will look better in a couple of weeks, but if you’re anxious to file your returns in hopes of receiving a higher stimulus check, I can only advise you to cool your heels and, if applicable, save yourself a fee to have an amended return prepared. Eventually, you’ll receive every penny of stimulus you’re entitled to, albeit perhaps on next year’s tax return. Given that stimulus payments are due to start arriving this weekend, rushing to file your return will have virtually no effect on the amount of the stimulus check you’ll receive over the next month.

If you filed your return early, only your tax preparer can advise you if you’ll need to amend that return to take into account the most recent tax changes. If you have a very simple return (Form W-2 and no deductions), my guess is that you’re OK. If you received unemployment compensation in 2020, then you may need to file an amended return to claim a refund of overpaid taxes.

My standard advice to clients is not to file prior to March 15 each year (because of last minute issuance and changes to 1099s), and it appears that will now extend until at least March 31. I highly recommend that you do the same.

If you would like to review your current investment portfolio or discuss your 2020 tax return, please don’t hesitate to contact us or visit our website at http://www.ydfs.com. We are a fee-only fiduciary financial planning firm that always puts your interests first.  If you are not a client yet, an initial consultation is complimentary and there is never any pressure or hidden sales pitch. We start with a specific assessment of your personal situation. There is no rush and no cookie-cutter approach. Each client is different, and so is your financial plan and investment objectives.

Making Your Money Last In Retirement

Quick Questions: How much can you safely withdraw each year from your retirement portfolio without the risk of running out of money before you run out of life? How much should you withdraw if you don’t want to leave too much money behind when you die?

If you’re as perplexed about answering these questions as many financial planners are, then this article will help update you on the latest research in this area of retirement planning. Saving for retirement is not easy, but using your retirement savings wisely can be just as challenging. Withdraw too much and you run the risk of running out of money. Withdraw too little and you may miss out on a more comfortable retirement lifestyle.

For more than 25 years, the most common guideline has been the “4% rule,” which suggests that a yearly withdrawal equal to 4% of the initial portfolio value, with annual increases for inflation, is sustainable over a 30-year retirement. This guideline can be helpful in projecting a savings goal and providing a realistic picture of the annual income your savings might provide. For example, a $1 million portfolio could provide $40,000 of income in the first year, with inflation-adjusted withdrawals in succeeding years.

The 4% rule has stimulated a great deal of discussion over the years, with some experts saying that 4% is too low, and others saying it’s too high. The most recent analysis comes from the man who studied it, financial professional William Bengen (widely considered in the financial planning profession as the “father of the safe withdrawal rate”), who believes the rule has been misunderstood and offers new insights based on new research.

Original Research

Bengen first published his findings in 1994, based on analyzing data for retirements beginning in 51 different years, from 1926 to 1976. He considered a hypothetical, conservative portfolio comprised of 50% large-cap stocks and 50% intermediate-term Treasury bonds held in a tax-advantaged account and rebalanced annually. A 4% inflation-adjusted withdrawal was the highest sustainable rate in the worst-case scenario — retirement in October 1968, the beginning of a bear market, and a long period of high inflation. All other retirement years had higher sustainable rates, some as high as 10% or more (1).

Of course, no one can predict the future, which is why Bengen suggested that the worst-case scenario as a sustainable rate. He later adjusted it slightly upward to 4.5%, based on a more diverse portfolio comprised of 30% large-cap stocks, 20% small-cap stocks, and 50% intermediate-term Treasuries (2).

New Research

In October 2020, Bengen published new research that attempts to project a sustainable withdrawal rate based on two key factors at the time of retirement: stock market valuation and inflation (the annual change in the Consumer Price Index). In theory, when the market is expensive, it has less potential to grow, and sustaining increased withdrawals over time may be more difficult. On the other hand, lower inflation means lower inflation-adjusted withdrawals, allowing for a higher initial rate. For example, a $40,000 first-year withdrawal becomes an $84,000 withdrawal after 20 years with a 4% annual inflation increase, but just $58,000 with a 2% annual increase.

To measure market valuation, Bengen used the Shiller CAPE, a cyclically adjusted price-earnings ratio for the S&P 500 index developed by Nobel laureate Robert Shiller. The price-earnings (P/E) ratio of a stock is the share price divided by its earnings per share for the previous 12 months. For example, if a stock is priced at $100 and the earnings per share is $4, the P/E ratio would be 25. The Shiller CAPE divides the total share price of stocks in the S&P 500 index by average inflation-adjusted earnings over 10 years.

5% rule?

Again using historical data — for retirement dates from 1926 to 1990 — Bengen found a clear correlation between market valuation and inflation at the time of retirement and the maximum sustainable withdrawal rate. Historically, rates ranged from as low as 4.5% to as high as 13%, but the scenarios that supported high rates were unusual, with very low market valuations and/or deflation rather than inflation (3).

For most of the last 25 years, the United States has experienced high market valuations, and inflation has been low since the Great Recession (4)(5). In a high-valuation, low-inflation scenario at the time of retirement, Bengen found that a 5% initial withdrawal rate was sustainable over 30 years (6). While not a big difference from the 4% rule, this suggests retirees could make larger initial withdrawals, particularly in a low-inflation environment.

One caveat is that current market valuation is extremely high: The S&P 500 index had a CAPE of 34.19 at the end of 2020, a level only reached (and exceeded) during the late-1990s dot-com boom and higher than any of the scenarios in Bengen’s research (7).  His range for a 5% withdrawal rate is a CAPE of 23 or higher, with inflation between 0% and 2.5% (8) (Inflation was 1.2% in November 2020 (9)). Bengen’s research suggests that if market valuation drops near the historical mean of 16.77, a withdrawal rate of 6% might be sustainable as long as inflation is 5% or lower. On the other hand, if valuation remains high and inflation surpasses 2.5%, the maximum sustainable rate might be 4.5% (10).

It’s important to keep in mind that these projections are based on historical scenarios and a hypothetical portfolio, and there is no guarantee that your portfolio will perform in a similar manner. Also remember that these calculations are based on annual inflation-adjusted withdrawals, and you might choose not to increase withdrawals in some years or use other criteria to make adjustments, such as market performance. For example, some retirees, in an effort to reduce withdrawals after a “down” year in the market, forego taking an inflation-based increase for the following year.

Although there is no assurance that working with a financial professional will improve your investment results, a professional can evaluate your objectives and available resources and help you consider appropriate long-term financial strategies, including your withdrawal strategy.

If you would like to review your current investment portfolio or discuss your current or upcoming withdrawal rate, please don’t hesitate to contact us or visit our website at http://www.ydfs.com. We are a fee-only fiduciary financial planning firm that always puts your interests first.  If you are not a client yet, an initial consultation is complimentary and there is never any pressure or hidden sales pitch. We start with a specific assessment of your personal situation. There is no rush and no cookie-cutter approach. Each client is different, and so is your financial plan and investment objectives.

(1)(2) Forbes Advisor, October 12, 2020
(3)(4)(6)(8,)(10) Financial Advisor, October 2020
(5)(9) U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2020
(7) multpl.com, December 31, 2020

Disclaimer: All investments are subject to market fluctuation, risk, and loss of principal. When sold, investments may be worth more or less than their original cost. U.S. Treasury securities are guaranteed by the federal government as to the timely payment of principal and interest. The principal value of Treasury securities fluctuates with market conditions. If not held to maturity, they could be worth more or less than the original amount paid. Asset allocation and diversification are methods used to help manage investment risk; they do not guarantee a profit or protect against investment loss. Rebalancing involves selling some investments in order to buy others; selling investments in a taxable account could result in a tax liability.

The S&P 500 index is an unmanaged group of securities considered representative of the U.S. stock market in general. The performance of an unmanaged index is not indicative of the performance of any specific investment. Individuals cannot invest directly in an index. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. Actual results will vary.

GameStop-Shop, Chop or Slop?

By now, I’m sure you’ve heard or read about the whole GameStop stock market story in the news or online this past week.  I realize a lot of ink has already been spilled on this topic and I am not sure I can add much value or color to the discussion. Nonetheless, perhaps my added value can be to try and explain, in the simplest terms that I can muster, this craziness in the stock and derivatives market.

Let me say that the GameStop “short squeeze” debacle has had little effect on the individual investor, because we, and the majority of registered investment advisors I know, do not short-sell stocks in client portfolios. We typically only invest in blue-chip quality and solid value or growth companies, index funds, and actively managed funds. Short selling is more the domain of large hedge funds, who both buy stocks and sell stocks short. We also don’t invest in companies that were already circling the “bankruptcy drain” such as GameStop and AMC Theatres (GameStop stock traded as low as $2.57 last June).  

So what is short selling?
Short selling is betting that a stock price will go down instead of up (the exact opposite of what everyday stock investors do). To do this, traders ask their broker/dealer if they have any shares that can be borrowed from someone else’s owned shares in the broker’s inventory. If shares are available to borrow, you proceed to sell those shares (short) in the markets at their prevailing price, in hopes that their price/value goes down. Your objective is to subsequently buy them back at a lower price, and “re-pay” your borrowed shares.

Imagine this being done with millions of shares of GameStop, where so many people were already betting that the stock was going down, but instead, the stock went up these past few weeks, and went up a lot. In fact, as unbelievable as it is, more shares were sold short than the entire number of outstanding shares issued by the company (164% to be exact, so many out there were loaning shares they didn’t even have). If you’re short the shares, and they go up in price, you are said to be getting “squeezed”, and your only option is to buy back the shares at much higher prices before your broker/dealer decides that you can no longer afford to stay short, buys them back on your behalf, and charges your account for the losses (the difference between the price you sold them for and the price you paid to buy them back). Imagine selling your shares short for $65.00 per share on Friday, January 22, only to be forced to buy them back at $313 on Friday, January 29 (GameStop traded as high as $483 last week). That’s a loss of 4.8X your money (or if you were lucky and instead bought the shares, you made 4.8X your money).

What we saw this past week was a concerted effort by members of a Reddit subgroup known as Wall Street Bets (WSB) to force these short shareholders to “cover” their short positions. The whole rush to cover short shares is like tinder for a fire because the higher the shares go, the more the short shareholders have to pay to buy them back in a negative “feedback loop” for their positions. Momentum traders and other investors who see this kind of short squeeze also pile on to try and capture or “scalp” some profits.

While some large hedge fund who do/did hold short shares in client accounts lost a lot of money over the past few weeks, the majority of investment advisors and their clients were largely unaffected, other than the fact that these same hedge funds, in an attempt to ride out the short squeeze, used and sold other blue chip stocks (such as Microsoft, Apple, Johnson and Johnson) to cover their losses on the short sales. That’s why you saw the price of those stocks go down last week.

This kind of thing shall pass, and although this may be the first time you’ve heard about this type of “squeeze”, it has happened a lot in the past and will likely happen again. This type of activity tends to crop up when you have a lot of people receiving government checks who have nowhere to go and have nothing better to do (and therefore nothing to lose), so they might as well risk that money in the markets. The current COVID environment has created the perfect stock market storm. I believe that this is more media hype than substance, and will be out of the news cycle in a short time. Cries for regulating or investigating all of this are misplaced in my opinion.

In other words, it’s business as usual in the stock market, unless you owned or shorted the stocks of AMC Theatres, GameStop, Bed, Bath & Beyond, and a few others. As in other newsworthy stock markets “mania’s”, when the dust settles, the majority of the players will likely lose their money because risk management and profit protection isn’t a regular part of their stock trading discipline. If you’re a long term investor, you should grab some popcorn and enjoy the “show” from a distance, and resist the temptation to jump in and risk your hard earned money. Because when the music stops, I believe that GameStop shares will be back to trading in the low-double, if not single-digits once again.

If you would like to review your current investment portfolio or discuss short-selling, please don’t hesitate to contact us or visit our website at http://www.ydfs.com. We are a fee-only fiduciary financial planning firm that always puts your interests first.  If you are not a client yet, an initial consultation is complimentary and there is never any pressure or hidden sales pitch. We start with a specific assessment of your personal situation. There is no rush and no cookie-cutter approach. Each client is different, and so is your financial plan and investment objectives.

IRA and Retirement Plan Limits for 2021

As the year comes to and end, it is good to know the limits for 2021 contributions to IRA’s and employer retirement plans.  Many IRA and retirement plan limits are indexed for inflation each year. While some of the limits remain unchanged for 2021, other key numbers have increased.

IRA contribution limits

The maximum amount you can contribute to a traditional IRA or a Roth IRA in 2021 is $6,000 (or 100% of your earned income, if less), unchanged from 2020. The maximum catch-up contribution for those age 50 or older remains $1,000. You can contribute to both a traditional IRA and a Roth IRA in 2021, but your total contributions cannot exceed these annual limits.

Income limits for deducting traditional IRA contributions

If you (or if you’re married, both you and your spouse) are not covered by an employer retirement plan, your contributions to a traditional IRA are generally fully tax deductible. If you’re married, filing jointly, and you’re not covered by an employer plan but your spouse is, your deduction is limited if your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) is between $198,000 and $208,000 (up from $196,000 and $206,000 in 2020), and eliminated if your MAGI is $208,000 or more (up from $206,000 in 2020).

For those who are covered by an employer plan, deductibility depends on your income and filing status.

If your 2021 federal income tax  filing status is: Your IRA deduction is limited if your MAGI is  between: Your deduction is eliminated if your MAGI is:
Single or head of household $66,000 and $76,000 $76,000 or more
Married filing jointly or qualifying  widow(er) $105,000 and $125,000 (combined) $125,000 or more  (combined)
Married filing separately $0  and $10,000 $10,000 or more

If your filing status is single or head of household, you can fully deduct your IRA contribution up to $6,000 ($7,000 if you are age 50 or older) in 2021 if your MAGI is $66,000 or less (up from $65,000 in 2020). If you’re married and filing a joint return, you can fully deduct up to $6,000 ($7,000 if you are age 50 or older) if your MAGI is $105,000 or less (up from $104,000 in 2020).

Income limits for contributing to a Roth IRA

The income limits for determining how much you can contribute to a Roth IRA have also increased.

If your 2021 federal income tax  filing status is: Your Roth IRA contribution is limited if your MAGI  is: You cannot contribute to a Roth IRA if your MAGI is:
Single or head of household More than $125,000 but less than $140,000 $140,000 or more
Married filing jointly or qualifying  widow(er) More than $198,000 but less than $208,000  (combined) $208,000 or more (combined)
Married filing separately More  than $0 but less than $10,000 $10,000 or more

If your filing status is single or head of household, you can contribute the full $6,000 ($7,000 if you are age 50 or older) to a Roth IRA if your MAGI is $125,000 or less (up from $124,000 in 2020). And if you’re married and filing a joint return, you can make a full contribution if your MAGI is $198,000 or less (up from $196,000 in 2020). Again, contributions can’t exceed 100% of your earned income.

Employer retirement plan limits

Most of the significant employer retirement plan limits for 2021 remain unchanged from 2020. The maximum amount you can contribute (your “elective deferrals”) to a 401(k) plan remains $19,500 in 2021. This limit also applies to 403(b) and 457(b) plans, as well as the Federal Thrift Plan. If you’re age 50 or older, you can also make catch-up contributions of up to $6,500 to these plans in 2021. [Special catch-up limits apply to certain participants in 403(b) and 457(b) plans.]

The amount you can contribute to a SIMPLE IRA or SIMPLE 401(k) remains $13,500 in 2021, and the catch-up limit for those age 50 or older remains $3,000.

Plan type: Annual dollar limit: Catch-up limit:
401(k), 403(b), governmental 457(b),  Federal Thrift Plan $19,500 $6,500
SIMPLE  plans $13,500 $3,000

Note: Contributions can’t exceed 100% of your earned income.

If you participate in more than one retirement plan, your total elective deferrals can’t exceed the annual limit ($19,500 in 2021 plus any applicable catch-up contributions). Deferrals to 401(k) plans, 403(b) plans, and SIMPLE plans are included in this aggregate limit, but deferrals to Section 457(b) plans are not. For example, if you participate in both a 403(b) plan and a 457(b) plan, you can defer the full dollar limit to each plan — a total of $39,000 in 2021 (plus any catch-up contributions).

The maximum amount that can be allocated to your account in a defined contribution plan [for example, a 401(k) plan or profit-sharing plan] in 2021 is $58,000 (up from $57,000 in 2020) plus age 50 or older catch-up contributions. This includes both your contributions and your employer’s contributions. Special rules apply if your employer sponsors more than one retirement plan.

Finally, the maximum amount of compensation that can be taken into account in determining benefits for most plans in 2021 is $290,000 (up from $285,000 in 2020), and the dollar threshold for determining highly compensated employees (when 2021 is the look-back year) remains $130,000 (unchanged from 2020).

If you would like to review your current investment portfolio or discuss 2021 IRA contributions, please don’t hesitate to contact us or visit our website at http://www.ydfs.com. We are a fee-only fiduciary financial planning firm that always puts your interests first.  If you are not a client yet, an initial consultation is complimentary and there is never any pressure or hidden sales pitch. We start with a specific assessment of your personal situation. There is no rush and no cookie-cutter approach. Each client is different, and so is your financial plan and investment objectives.

Year-End Tax Planning for 2020 (Business)

In December of 2019, the Further Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2020, was signed into law. Included in that new law was the SECURE Act of 2019, which not only extended certain expiring tax credits, such as the employer credit for paid family and medical leave, it also made favorable changes to certain provisions relating to employer-provided retirement plans.

In 2020, the first piece of COVID-19 legislation signed into law was the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (Families First Act), which responded to the coronavirus outbreak by providing, among other things, payroll tax credits for leave required to be paid under the newly enacted Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act (EPSLA) and Emergency Family and Medical Leave Expansion Act (EFMLEA). The Families First Act was followed by the biggest piece of legislation for the year – the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act). Included in the CARES Act was the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), a program authorized by the Small Business Administration (SBA) to guarantee $349 billion in new loans to eligible businesses and nonprofits affected by coronavirus/COVID-19. Such loans may also qualify for tax-free loan forgiveness. We need to evaluate the changes made by the CARES Act, as well as subsequent coronavirus-related legislation, to determine their impact on your business’s tax liability. The following are some of the considerations we need to review when deciding what year-end actions may be appropriate to reap the most benefit to you and your business’s bottom line.

Depreciation Deductions

Among the many changes made by the CARES Act, the one which may have the most impact is the correction of a technical error made in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 (TCJA). That error resulted in the 15-year recovery period that applied to qualified leasehold improvements, qualified restaurant property, and qualified retail improvement property being eliminated for such property placed in service after 2017. After the TCJA, the depreciation period for such property, now referred to as “qualified improvement property,” was 39 years and, as a result, did not meet the requirements for additional first-year depreciation (i.e., bonus depreciation). Under the CARES Act, qualified improvement property is now depreciated over a 15-year life and meets the criteria for taking bonus depreciation. The change is effective as if it were included in the TCJA. Thus, if your business is affected by this change, we can file amended returns to claim refunds for the deductions that should have been available to you had the technical error not happened.

Relaxed Rules for Deducting Net Operating Losses

The CARES Act also temporarily removed the 80 percent limitation on taxable income for deducting net operating losses (NOLs) for 2020. In addition, the CARES Act amended the rules for NOLs to provide for a five-year carryback of any NOL arising in 2018, 2019, and 2020. As a result, if applicable, your business can take such NOLs into account in the earliest tax year in the carryback period and carry forward unused amounts to each succeeding tax year. Alternatively, you can waive this carryback period and instead carry forward any NOLs to offset income in future years. Depending on expected tax rates and cash flow in future years, this waiver option may make more sense than carrying back any NOLs.

Reduction in Business Interest Limitation

The CARES Act reduced the limitation on the deductibility of business interest. For tax years beginning in 2019 or 2020, 50 percent of a business’s adjusted taxable income, rather than 30 percent, is used to determine the business interest limitation. A special rule is provided for partnerships. Under this special rule, the increase in the limitation to 50 percent of adjusted taxable income in determining the business interest limitation does not apply to a partnership for 2019, subject to certain rules relating to allocations to the partners. There is also an election under which a business can substitute its adjusted taxable income for its last tax year beginning in 2019 for its adjusted taxable income for 2020 in calculating the business interest limitation for 2020. Keep in mind that the business interest deduction limitation only applies if the gross receipts of your business exceed $26 million in 2019 and 2020; Additionally, certain types of businesses are exempt from the limitation.

Modification of Excess Business Loss Limitation Rules

The CARES Act eliminated certain limitations on excess farm losses of a business other than a corporation. This change applies to any tax year beginning after December 31, 2017, and before January 1, 2026. Thus, if you had such losses that were limited in 2018 and/or 2019, we may be able to obtain tax refunds with respect to those years. Further, excess business losses, previously disallowed for tax years beginning after December 31, 2017, and before January 1, 2026, are now allowed for tax years beginning after 2017 and before January 1, 2021. This also presents an opportunity for amended tax returns if it applies to your business.

Minimum Tax Credit Refund

The CARES Act modified the rules for the minimum tax credit for alternative minimum tax (AMT) incurred by a corporation in a prior tax year. Under this provision, the limitation on the credit for prior year minimum tax liability does not apply to a corporation’s 2020 and 2021 tax years and the AMT refundable credit amount is 100 percent, rather than 50 percent, for tax years beginning in 2019. In addition, a corporation can elect to take the entire refundable credit amount in 2018. A corporation can apply for a tentative refund of any amount for which a refund is due by reason of this new election and, within 90 days, the IRS is required to review the application, determine the amount of the overpayment, and apply, credit, or refund the overpayment.

Retirement Plans and Other Employee Benefits

You can reap substantial tax benefits, as well as non-tax benefits, by offering a retirement plan and/or other fringe benefits to employees. Businesses that offer such benefits have a better chance of attracting and retaining talented workers. This, in turn, reduces the costs of searching for and training new employees. Contributions made to retirement plans on behalf of employees are deductible and you may be eligible for a tax credit for setting up a qualified plan. In addition, business owners can take advantage of the retirement plan themselves, as can their spouse. Where a spouse is not currently on the payroll of a business, consideration should be given to adding the spouse as an employee and paying a salary up to the maximum amount that can be deferred into a retirement plan. So, for example, if your spouse is 50 years old or over and receives a salary of $25,000, all of it could go into a 401(k), leaving him or her with a retirement account but no taxable income.

To help employees with medical expenses, your business might consider setting up a high deductible health plan paired with a health savings account (HSA). The benefits to a business include savings on health insurance premiums that would otherwise be paid to traditional health insurance companies and having employee wage contributions to the plan not being counted as wages and thus neither the employer nor the employee is subject to FICA taxes on the payroll contributions. As for employees, they can reap a tax deduction for funds contributed to the HSA, which they can invest the funds for future medical costs because there is no use-it-or-lose-it limit like there is for most flexible spending accounts; thus the funds can grow tax free and be used in retirement.

Your business might also consider establishing a flexible spending arrangement (FSA) which allows employees to be reimbursed for medical expenses and is usually funded through voluntary salary reduction agreements with the employer. The employer has the option of making or not making contributions to the FSA. Some of the benefits of an FSA include the fact that contributions made by the business can be excluded from the employee’s gross income, no employment or federal income taxes are deducted from the contributions, reimbursements to the employee are tax free if used for qualified medical expenses, and the FSA can be used to pay qualified medical expenses even if the employer or employee haven’t yet placed the funds in the account.

In addition, the SECURE Act made substantial changes to retirement plan-related provisions from which your business may benefit. For one, it increased the credit available for small employer pension plan startup costs. The credit is available for qualified startup costs of an eligible small employer that adopts a new qualified retirement plan, SIMPLE IRA plan, or SEP, provided that the plan covers at least one non-highly compensated employee. Qualified startup costs are expenses connected with the establishment or administration of the plan or retirement-related education for employees with respect to the plan. The credit, which applies for up to three years, was increased to the lesser of (1) a flat dollar amount of $500 per year, or (2) 50 percent of the qualified startup costs.

The SECURE Act also extended through 2020 an employer credit for paid family and medical leave. The credit allows eligible employers to claim a general business credit equal to an applicable percent of the amount of wages paid to qualifying employees during any period in which such employees are on family and medical leave, provided that the rate of payment under the program is at least 50 percent of the wages normally paid to an employee.

The SECURE Act also extended the work opportunity credit through 2020. Under this provision, an employer can take a 40 percent credit for qualified first-year wages paid or incurred with respect to employees who are members of a targeted group of employees.

Qualified Business Income Deduction

If you participate in a business as sole proprietor, a partner in a partnership, a member in an LLC taxed as a partnership, or as a shareholder in an S corporation, you may be eligible for the qualified business income (QBI) deduction. The QBI deduction is generally 20 percent of qualifying business income from a qualified trade or business. A W-2 wage limitation amount may apply to limit the amount of the deduction. The W-2 wage limitation amount must be calculated for taxpayers with a taxable income that exceeds a statutorily-defined amount (i.e., the threshold amount). For any tax year beginning in 2020, the threshold amount is $326,600 for married filing joint returns, $163,300 for married filing separate returns, and $163,300 for all other returns.

The QBI deduction reduces taxable income, and is not used in computing adjusted gross income. Thus, it does not affect limitations based on adjusted gross income. The QBI deduction does not apply to a “specified service trade or business,” which is defined as any trade or business involving the performance of services in the fields of health, law, accounting, actuarial science, performing arts, consulting, athletics, financial services, brokerage services, including investing and investment management, trading, or dealing in securities, partnership interests, or commodities, and any trade or business where the principal asset of such trade or business is the reputation or skill of one or more of its employees. Engineering and architecture services are specifically excluded from the definition of a specified service trade or business.

Some of the categories and fields listed as a specified service trade or business are fairly clear in their meaning. Others – such as “consulting” and “any trade or business where the principal asset of such trade or business is the reputation or skill of one or more of its employees” – are more vague. If your business could be considered a specified service trade or business, we will need to document why it should not be considered such a business and is thus eligible for the QBI deduction.

Employee Payroll Tax Deferrals

In a Payroll Tax Memorandum issued in August, President Trump directed Treasury Secretary Mnuchin to use his authority to defer the withholding, deposit, and payment of employee social security taxes, as well as taxes imposed under the Railroad Retirement Tax Act (RRTA) on railroad employees, for the period of September 1, 2020, through December 31, 2020. Because these taxes are not forgiven, and must be repaid at the end of the year, such a deferral could result in numerous practical challenges, such as what happens if an employee leaves before he or she repays the payroll taxes. If you have deferred an employee’s payroll taxes under this Presidential directive, we need to discuss your options.

Extension of Time to Pay Employment Taxes

Under the CARES Act, a business can delay payment of applicable employment taxes for the period beginning on March 27, 2020, and ending before January 1, 2021 (i.e., the payroll tax deferral period). Generally, under this provision, the business is treated as having timely made all deposits of applicable employment taxes that would otherwise be required during the payroll tax deferral period if all such deposits are made not later than the “applicable date,” which is (1) December 31, 2021, with respect to 50 percent of the amounts due, and (2) December 31, 2022, with respect to the remaining amounts. For self-employed taxpayers, the payment for 50 percent of the self-employment taxes for the payroll tax deferral period is not due before the applicable date. For purposes of applying the penalty for underpayment of estimated income taxes to any tax year which includes any part of the payroll tax deferral period, 50 percent of the self-employment taxes for the payroll tax deferral period are not treated as taxes to which that penalty applies.

PPP Loan

If your business obtained funds through the PPP program, we should discuss the steps and documentation necessary to ensure that your loan is fully forgiven.

Impact of Future Tax Legislation

Because it is unclear what, if any, tax legislation may be coming next year, we’ll need to base our year-end planning on existing law.

If you would like to review your current investment portfolio or discuss any other financial or tax planning matters, please don’t hesitate to contact us or visit our website at http://www.ydfs.com. We are a fee-only fiduciary financial planning firm that always puts your interests first. If you are not a client yet, an initial consultation is complimentary and there is never any pressure or hidden sales pitch. We start with a specific assessment of your personal situation. There is no rush and no cookie-cutter approach. Each client is different, and so is your financial plan and investment objectives.

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